Madonna of the Medal — illustration by the author
The visionaries who followed Catherine Laboure´ into the Marian Age would be at the center of the attention surrounding the phenomena of their apparitions (i.e., St. Bernadette of Lourdes, the three children of Fatima), but not Catherine. She adamantly insisted to Fr. Aladel that Our Lady had told her to “speak only to her confessor” about the visions. Catherine would not budge from this position for 46 years. We can well imagine the sense of excitement and intrigue in the convent when the news leaked out that one of the Sisters had been privileged to see the Blessed Virgin. The endless conjecture, the sly questions intended to unearth the seer in their midst, could well have tripped up Catherine, but she was more than equal to the task of protecting her secret. Over time, she became quite adept at deflecting suspicion, and probably even enjoyed this challenge to her cleverness and wit.
There is no doubt that the humility, discretion, and courage it took for Catherine to keep her secret until shortly before her death in 1876 were of such a heroic nature that it remains one of the most significant acts of her life. She truly is a role model for those who lead hidden but fruitful lives in God’s service. At Catherine’s Beatification service, Pope Pius XI said with dry humor, “To think of keeping a secret for 46 years — and this by a woman, and a Sister!”
Not that Catherine adopted a standoffish attitude to protect herself. Quite the contrary — although she had a quiet nature, she was lively and even merry as a novice, spending many happy hours with the other Sisters during recreation. There is little doubt, however, that keeping her secret was the right thing for her particular soul, as she was shy and did not like the limelight. For her, obscurity was the road to sanctity. She knew she was only an instrument of God’s grace, and that her visions were a gift to the world and not for herself alone.
Catherine’s life in the years after the great Apparitions of 1830 is beautifully summarized in the words of her dear friend, Sr. Sejole: “Later on, when they speak of her who saw the Blessed Virgin, you will be happy to have known this beautiful soul, living such an ordinary life and keeping herself hidden behind her duties.”
Like all of us, Catherine had her own particular faults to overcome. Throughout her life she was given to flashes of temper and a sharp tongue. She also had a very strong will, which is obvious in the way she overcame so many obstacles in the early years of her life. But once the mission of the Medal was accomplished, Catherine’s life took on a different tone. Now she had to live in complete submission to her superiors, who were sometimes unreasonable, even wrong, in their judgment. Yet because of her vow of obedience, Catherine had to conquer her natural impulse to do things her own way.
For instance, although Catherine had been the very competent mistress of her father’s household from a young age, she was now often forced to accept a superior’s way of doing things, despite the fact that Catherine was far more capable than her superiors of the task at hand. Having strong ideas herself about how things should be done, she often found it difficult being contradicted. But she rose above this by developing the virtues of patience and humility to the extent that she was able to graciously defer to the other Sister and be charitable to her above and beyond what was required.
Although Catherine took her vow of poverty so seriously that upon her death the Sr. Servant was shocked to find so few belongings in Catherine’s possession, she was generous in her consideration of others. One day, she saw a Sister return from laundry duty with her habit soaking wet. Concerned that the Sister should not become chilled, Catherine went hastily to the Superior to get some warm flannel so the Sister could change her clothes.
Catherine’s superiors definitely recognized her extraordinary capabilities and common sense, because in 1836, at the age of 30, she was given the important position of being in charge of the elderly men at Enghien and running the little farm attached to the Hospice. Catherine loved this because it reminded her of her childhood on the Laboure´ farm, and she enjoyed feeding the chickens and milking the cows. Though not officially given the title, she was Assistant Superior of both the Hospice d’Enghien and the nearby House of Charity of Reuilly, which shared a common Superior and chapel.
For the next 10 years, Catherine’s daily routine remained virtually unchanged. She cared for the aged residents in her charge — irascible and difficult as some of them were — with unflinching devotion, patience, compassion, and kindness. She already had experience dealing with these sorts of men at her brother’s restaurant, and it must have occurred to Catherine that the time she had spent as a waitress had served a Divine purpose after all, in preparing her to deal with the men at Enghien. As she had done for most of her life, Catherine served meals, mended clothes, nursed the sick, comforted the dying, and kept everyone content and everything running smoothly. For those who are caregivers to the elderly, Catherine serves as a shining example and steadfast source of help and inspiration.
Catherine followed St. Vincent’s own counsel that no religious exercise, not even Mass, should come before the needs of the sick or poor. She was so devoted to her charges that she would turn down invitations to festivals and other diversions, saying, “These are good for the young Sisters, but I have to care for my old men.” She always took time out, however, for spiritual conferences and retreats, knowing she needed these to feed and sustain her soul.
She insisted that “her old men” receive the best of food in generous quantities. On her feast day, one of the men stood up at the end of the meal and announced, “Sr. Catherine, you are very good to us, and at table you always ask, ‘Have you had enough?’ “ Yet she did not spoil her charges — she ruled the house with a firm but loving hand. Some of the old men would return drunk after their weekly day out. Catherine would put them promptly to bed, carrying away their clothes and hiding them for the next three days, and these men would not be allowed their next day out. But when another Sister once reproached her for not being stern enough with a particular offender, Catherine replied, “I can’t help it. I keep seeing Christ in him.” She did, however, dutifully reprimand him the next morning.
The one virtue that seemed to shine most brightly in Catherine was her purity. Her sister Tonine once said of Catherine, “she did not know evil.” Many who knew her believe that it was because of her extraordinary chastity that Mary chose her to be the recipient of the apparitions. Thus, the greatest trial Catherine faced was caring for those men in her charge whom she knew to be impure. Revulsion would engulf her, and it took a supreme effort of will, made possible by prayer, for her to see Christ in even the foulest of her charges. In this way, she was able to control her feelings and care for them with tenderness and compassion. With great charm and grace she was able to melt the hearts of even the most hardened sinners.
Even though she had entered the religious life, Catherine never lost her deep love of family and warmly welcomed the frequent visits of her brothers and their families, who lived in Paris. Tonine married in 1858 and also moved nearby, renewing with Catherine the close sisterly relationship they had shared in earlier years. When Tonine later died after a long and painful illness, Catherine was at her bedside. Catherine was also able to be at the deathbed of her brother Jacques, lovingly placing a Miraculous Medal around his neck.
At the request of Fr. Aladel, in 1841 Catherine wrote out her first complete account of the apparitions. She also entreated Fr. Aladel to have an altar built on the spot of the apparitions and to have a commemorative statue made of Our Lady with the globe in her hands (the first phase of the Apparition of Nov. 27), to be placed on the altar. Although Fr. Aladel made a tentative start on this matter, he did not follow through, much to Catherine’s perpetual dismay.
In 1842, the dramatic and well-publicized conversion, attributed to the Miraculous Medal, of Alphonse Rattisbonne, a vehemently anti-Catholic banker, resulted in Rome’s official recognition of the Medal. There is no doubt that the Apparition of 1830 and the subsequent outpouring of devotion to the Immaculate Conception because of the Medal, had a great bearing on the solemn declaration by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. When in 1858 news reached Catherine about the apparition of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, she exclaimed, “You see, it is our own Blessed Mother, the Immaculate!”
Although Catherine had told Fr. Aladel in 1830 that the Blessed Virgin wished to establish a Confraternity of Children of Mary, he did not act on this until 1835, when he petitioned Rome about it. In 1847, the Children of Mary was officially established, soon spreading worldwide. Although for reasons of secrecy Catherine did not connect herself with the Confraternity, she welcomed and encouraged each new member of the Children of Mary in Reuilly. Always concerned with the souls of the young, she often spent time with the neighborhood children.
In 1860, 37-yr.-old Sr. Jeanne Dufes became Superior of Reuilly and Enghien. Because she and Catherine were alike in many ways — practical, capable, but stubborn and quick-tempered — there was a natural antipathy between them from the start. But, as Sr. Dufes herself was to later admit, Catherine was able to conquer her flashes of temper immediately, while Sr. Dufes had to struggle long and hard with hers. Because there was always the suspicion among the community that Catherine was the Sister of the Apparitions, Sr. Dufes may have felt it her duty to keep Catherine humble. Sr. Dufes did not dislike Catherine, but usually neglected her, treating her with indifference and little appreciation. She often reprimanded Catherine unfairly for trivialities, even in front of the other Sisters. Yet Catherine always held her tongue, remaining humble and obedient which, given her natural tendencies, required great strength of character.
On April 25, 1865, the 35th anniversary of Catherine’s first vision of St. Vincent’s heart, Fr. Aladel died of a stroke, and Fr. Etienne succeeded him as Catherine’s confessor. Five years later, France once again suffered terribly from yet another change in government following the Franco-Prussian War. Our Lady’s prediction in 1830 of the horrors that would occur “in 40 years” now came to pass, and the houses of Reuilly and Enghien were caught in the thick of it. But once again they were protected, as Our Lady had promised.
When peace returned to France, peace settled also upon Catherine’s soul in these, her final, years. She no longer had to dread the dire events prophesied by Our Lady, as she had for the past 40 years. Her country and her religious community had come through it safely. Catherine was now growing old and her body was beginning to wear down. Although she certainly did not fear death, and no doubt looked forward to seeing the Virgin again in the next life, she did not have the great desire for death that some other saints had. Despite severe arthritis of the knees, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, she carried out all her duties to the best of her ability, knowing in her wise way that this was all God expected of anyone. But gradually, her Superiors eased her workload and assigned assistants to her, some of whom, ironically, caused Catherine more trouble than the work itself had. One lay helper, being mentally unstable, was so difficult that Catherine was the only one who would tolerate her. Despite the woman’s cruel attitude toward her, Catherine refused to have her dismissed, because she knew the woman would not find employment anywhere else.
In 1874, Catherine was relieved of her position as Custodian, and Sr. Tanguy was chosen to succeed her, receiving the title of Assistant Superior of Reuilly and Enghien — a title Catherine had never been granted, despite having done the job for 38 years. This was hard for Catherine, especially since she did not particularly like Sr. Tanguy. Catherine, however, not only practiced charity toward her, but when asked her feelings about Sr. Tanguy’s appointment, she replied, “Our Superiors have spoken, and that should be sufficient for us to receive Sr. Tanguy as an angel from heaven.”
In May of 1876, perhaps realizing that she had not much longer to live, Catherine decided to make a last attempt to have the statue of “Our Lady of the Globe” made. Her failure to accomplish this task all those years was one of the greatest crosses of her life. But now she needed the help of both Fr. Bore, current Superior General of the Community, and of Sister Superior Dufes. This meant that Catherine had to break her silence of 46 years and reveal to them her identity as the Sister of the Apparitions. She did this after praying and receiving Our Lady’s permission.
Sr. Dufes set the wheels in motion by hiring a sculptor, Froc Robert, to begin work on the statue. Not surprisingly, upon seeing the finished plaster model, Catherine exclaimed in disappointment, “Ah — the Blessed Virgin was much more beautiful than that!” Nevertheless, Catherine had finally accomplished her one remaining mission, and now she told everyone that she would not live to see the New Year. Despite their disbelief, she insisted with a smile, “You will see!” Throughout her religious life, Catherine had predicted many events which later came to pass, but oddly enough, none of her fellow nuns seemed to recognize the significance of this extraordinary gift.
As the year wore on, she became sicker and weaker. Although she still went out occasionally, she found herself confined to bed with increasing frequency. It was at this time that Fr. Chevalier, her new confessor, requested that Catherine write once again a full account of her visions. This last account agreed in every detail with the accounts of 1841 and 1846.
On Dec. 31, 1876, Catherine was feeling well enough to receive a visit from her niece Marie, during which she gave Marie a Miraculous Medal — the last of her supply of the original ones. When Marie left, she told Catherine she would stop by in the morning to wish her a Happy New Year, but Catherine replied, “I shall not be here.” Shortly after 6:00 p.m., she took a turn for the worse. The Sisters gathered around her to say the prayers for the dying, and at 7:00 p.m., Catherine Laboure´ went peacefully to join her beloved Heavenly Mother.
At supper that evening, Sr. Dufes read to the enthralled Community Catherine’s account of the Visions. The exciting news that Catherine had indeed been the Sister of the Apparitions (as many had suspected) soon spread beyond the convent to the whole city. Catherine’s funeral was held on Jan. 3, 1877, and she was laid to rest in a vault beneath the chapel at Reuilly, as she herself had predicted several weeks earlier. A few days after the funeral, the first cure attributed to Catherine Laboure´ occurred. A 10-yr.-old boy, who had been paralyzed since birth, was totally restored to health after touching Catherine’s tomb.
In 1895, a petition was submitted to Rome for a feast day in honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and shortly thereafter the Cause for the Beatification of Sr. Catherine Laboure´ was also begun. After a long period of research into Catherine’s life, she was beatified on May 28, 1933. As is customary, at this time the body of Blessed Catherine was exhumed. It was found to be as fresh and incorrupt as on the day she was buried.
Catherine Laboure´ was canonized on July 17, 1947. At the close of the ceremony, Pope Pius XII said of her:
“Favored though she was with visions and celestial delights, she did not advertise herself to seek worldly fame, but took herself merely for the handmaid of God and preferred to remain unknown and to be reputed as nothing. And thus, desiring only the glory of God and of His Mother, she went meekly about the ordinary, and even the unpleasant, tasks that were assigned to her….And while she worked away, never idle but always busy and cheerful, her heart never lost sight of heavenly things: indeed she saw God uninterruptedly in all things and all things in God.”
Author’s Note: I have always had a particular interest in and devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, having attended church and school as a child in the parish of that name (nicknamed “OLMM”) in Ridgewood, NY. I now live near Philadelphia, where the Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal has its home in Germantown. It seems that Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal is never far from me! Although I had learned the story of the Miraculous Medal as a child from the nuns who taught at OLMM school, I didn’t know much about St. Catherine Laboure, to whom the medal was first revealed. Always fascinated by mystics and visionaries, I wanted to find out more about her, and that’s how I came to write this series. I hope you found it interesting.